THE FALL OF FORT DONELSON: The Battle That Sealed the Confederacy’s Fate

Grant early in the War.
Grant early in the War.

February 16, 1862 was perhaps the most important date in the Civil War, the day the Confederate Army besieged at Fort Donelson fell to the Union forces led by General Ulysses S. Grant.

Why was it the most important date, you may ask?  Because, although both sides did not realize it, that was the day that the Union began to win the war.  In one blow, the Ohio River Valley was secured for the North and the system of forts guarding the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers fell irrevocably into Federal hands, opening the way into the Confederate Heartland.  Within weeks, the Rebel state capital of Nashville had fallen and with it all internal lines of communication west of the Appalachians, as well as substantial industrial resources.

Looking for Union wounded by torchlight in Winter weather.  The bitter cold at Fort Donelson killed many battlefield casualties.
Looking for Union wounded by torchlight in Winter weather. The bitter cold at Fort Donelson killed many battlefield casualties.

Had Generals Grant and Halleck not bungled the advance on Corinth, Mississippi at Shiloh on April 6, by the end of the Spring, Mississippi and much of the deep South would also have fallen to the Federals. The Confederate government would have been in the position it found itself in the spring of 1865: confined to a three state rump on the east coast, blockaded by sea and with no escape.  The intervening period between the fall of Donelson and the capture of Savannah was really just one of redeeming the mistakes made at Shiloh and Corinth.  In a sense, the spectacular success of Grant’s forces in February of 1862 were to blame for not finishing the job; Grant, thinking the Confederates had no fight left in them, grew careless at Pittsburg Landing while awaiting Buell’s reinforcements and was grossly negligent by not constructing defenses around his bivouacs, as well as not being vigilant in patrolling his positions to warn of enemy advances. His boss, General Halleck deserves some blame as well, sending raw recruits to Grant who had not even undergone basic training.  In truth, had Grant not been so careless, he would have had ample warning of the enemy’s moves and could easily have caught them in line of march as they advanced towards Shiloh and decimated the last organized Rebel forces between the mountains and the Mississippi.

But the blunders by both sides at Shiloh are best left for another time.  Let us focus on the victory at Donelson.  Originally, General Don Carlos Buell had urged his fellow department commander, General Halleck, to mount a joint operation against the Rebel forts holding the strategic junction called “The Land Between the Rivers”—that area where the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers are only a few miles apart and where both empty into the Ohio.  Here the Rebels concentrated most of the western forces to bar Union troops from invading the Confederate heartland.

Storming Fort Donelson by Union troops.  In truth, Grant began the siege without enough troops to take the fort by storm.
Storming Fort Donelson by Union troops. In truth, Grant began the siege without enough troops to take the fort by storm.

Halleck, however, spurned Buell’s plan of action, but no sooner had he done so than he authorized his subordinate, Brigadier General Grant, to lead of expedition to undertake the very same operation that he had rejected.  Grant to that date had not achieved any notable success as a field commander and “Old Brains” Halleck thought Grant too reckless.  But with a powerful flotilla to blast the river forts, Halleck thought Grant up to the task of at least establishing a foothold—after which Halleck himself would come up with more troops and finish the task.

As it turned out, Fort Henry easily fell to the Union fleet’s bombardment—largely due to its riverside “water battery” being nearly submerged by winter rains.  Another Rebel fort on the Ohio also fell with little fanfare.  Grant landed his troops at Fort Henry and then, instead of waiting on the methodical but slow Halleck, marched his small force overland to Fort Donelson, which protected the Cumberland River.  It was a risky move, since Grant had fewer troops than the force holed up at Donelson.  Fortunately, the Rebels had put all their heavy guns facing riverward, thinking the Yankees would only attack from than quarter.  Even so, it was a very near thing for Grant as both Halleck and Buell scrambled to send him reinforcements and the Confederates made attempts to break the siege.

At one point, the Confederate counterattack was on the verge of succeeding; but due to the courage and leadership of the two Generals Wallace: William L. Wallace and Lew Wallace, the Rebel assault faltered and was driven back.

General William Hervey Lamme Wallace leading his men to battle, after Ottawa mural by G. Byron Peck
General William H L Wallace leading his men to battle, after Ottawa mural by G. Byron Peck
General Lewis Wallace, the savior of Grant at both Ft. Donelson and Shiloh and author of Ben Hur
General Lewis Wallace, the savior of Grant at both Ft. Donelson and Shiloh and author of Ben Hur










Inside Fort Donelson, despite their strength in numbers, the Confederates were in dire straits.  The Rebel troops had not been properly equipped, nor were their clothes suited for the bitter winter weather they endured.  Worse still, the Rebel force was led by officers who were better politicians than soldiers and when Grant proved too tenacious for them, asked for terms of surrender.

The Confederate surrender of Fort Donelson was due to a bluff on U. S. Grant's part.
The Confederate surrender of Fort Donelson was due to a bluff on U. S. Grant’s part.

Grant, who was not only fond of hard drink, but also something of a poker player, responded to the overtures of surrender with the reply that made him famous: “no terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted.”  Grant then drove home his demand by adding: “I propose to move immediately upon your works.”  Ulysses Grant may never have made much money playing poker with his cronies before the war, but his great bluff worked on this occasion.

General Nathan Bedford Forrest refused to surrender at Fort Donelson and broke through the Union siege lines.
General Nathan Bedford Forrest refused to surrender at Fort Donelson and broke through the Union siege lines.

The Rebel commanders at Donelson succeeded one another trying avoiding responsibility for the surrender but in short order capitulated to the Yankees.  That Confederate commanders may have just as easily broken out of Grant’s weak siege is demonstrated by the fact the Nathan Bedford Forrest, who refused surrender without a fight, broke out along with some 1500 men.

Grant was most successful as a field commander when conducting sieges: Vicksburg and Petersburg come to mind and perhaps are more famous than this siege; but the investment of Fort Donelson, begun on an impulse, was far and away his most spectacular victory and cost the least in blood.  Even more importantly,  this was the event that set in motion the inexorable road to Union victory.

Ambrose Bierce, famed American author, best known for his macabre fiction and cynical humor, served as a soldier in the front lines throughout the Civil War. Bierce’s wartime experiences were the transformative events of the young author’s life. Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife for the first time chronicles this pivotal period of Bierce’s life.

For more on the Civil War, read The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln and The Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War.

The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln (Schiffer)
The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln (Schiffer)
Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War (HarperCollins). True uncanny tales of the Civil War.
Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War (HarperCollins). True uncanny tales of the Civil War.

The Two Generals Wallace, Part 2

Alonzo Chapel  Shiloh color enlarged
Shiloh. Union troops on April 7 recapturing Federal artillery lost to the Rebels in the previous day’s defeat. Print by Alonzo Chappel.


General Lewis Wallace would have arrived on the battlefield of Shiloh earlier in the day, had it not been for Grant's own delay in sending for him.
General Lewis Wallace would have arrived on the battlefield of Shiloh earlier in the day, had it not been for Grant’s own delay in sending for him.

Lewis Wallace came from a political background, much as had William Wallace. His father had been a successful lawyer and jurist and later served as Lieutenant Governor and then Governor of Indiana. Lewis followed in his father’s footsteps and became a lawyer in his turn.

Lew Wallace was active in Indiana politics but remained a Democrat even when Oliver Morton, disenchanted with the party’s growing appeasement of the militant pro-slavery Southern wing, bolted the party and joined the new Republican Party.

Lew Wallace’s career, like William Wallace’s, was interrupted by service in the Mexican War, where he served in the 1st Indiana Volunteer Infantry.

However, when Lew witnessed the Lincoln-Douglas debates, he was greatly impressed by Lincoln’s performance–far more so than that of Stephen Douglas’s. Witnessing the growing sectarian division in the country, Lew even organized a militia company–The Crawfordsville Guards Independent Militia–in Indiana several years before the outbreak of war, looking towards the day it would be needed to help preserve the Union.

After the Election of 186O, as it became obvious that it was pro-slavery militants who were actually going to precipitate a civil war, Lew Wallace finally threw his lot in with the Republicans. Lew was what was called a “War Democrat.” Wallace went to Governor Oliver Morton to volunteer his services for the Union.

Initially, Wallace was made Adjutant General and put in charge of helping organize the masses of recruits flooding into the training camps throughout Indiana. Lew was then given commission as Colonel of the 11th Indiana Volunteer Infantry and dispatched with his command to help liberate western Virginia (later West Virginia). The core of Wallace’s regiment consisted of his old company of volunteers, now expanded to a full regiment of zouaves. After seeing some brief skirmishing in Virginia, the regiment’s term of enlistment expired, but it was soon replaced by a three year regiment. In September, however, Colonel Lew was promoted to general and given a brigade to command.

In February, 1862, Brigadier Lew Wallace took part in the expedition to attack the Confederate forts guarding the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers on the border between Kentucky and Tennessee. Now part of General Smith’s division, Wallace’s brigade was at first given the passive role of garrisoning Fort Heiman, an unoccupied Rebel defense across from Fort Henry, which had been blasted into submission by Flag Officer Foote’s flotilla of gunboats.

Soon, however, Grant precipitous advance on Fort Donelson necessitated his calling up Wallace’s unit to close the siege of the Rebel stronghold.  Although told not to take offensive action by Grant, General Wallace, now in charge of a full division, realized that nearby Federal troops were about to be overrun and, against orders, advanced to prevent an enemy breakthrough. He arrived to find General William Wallace’s outnumbered troops falling back and rushed to their rescue, saving the day.  The Confederate counter-attack a failure, the enemy inside Fort Donelson soon surrendered to Grant.

After the successful conclusion of the Donelson Campaign, Lew Wallace found himself promoted to Major General and in command of a division on a permanent basis. He was soon dispatched up the Tennessee River where the next campaign, aimed against the strategic rail junction of Corinth, Mississippi, was starting to take shape. Lew’s first mission was to cut the Mobile and Ohio Railroad north of Corinth, even as Sherman’s division was to cut the railroad south of the city. Wallace’s mission was a success and he returned to his temporary camp along the Tennessee.  General Lew Wallace expected an advance on Corinth proper would follow almost immediately as that post was still weakly held. But it was not to be.

Instead, General Henry Halleck, the departmental commander–nicknamed “Old Brains”– had decided to wait and have both Grant and General Buell’s armies rendezvous near Savannah, Tennessee, before moving against Corinth. In the wake of the spectacular victory at Fort Donelson and the fall of Nashville, Wallace’s superiors believed the Rebellion was all but over. Wallace’s temporary advance base at Crump’s Landing was therefore made his division’s bivouac, as he awaited the rest of the Union forces to accumulate further downriver.

As the bulk of the army gathered at Pittsburg Landing, some six to eight miles distant, Lew Wallace feared that his isolated division was vulnerable to enemy attack.  Wallace deployed his brigades in depth, even as he sent out cavalry patrols and scouts (spies) to reconnoiter the countryside.

Wallace also familiarized himself with the roads in the area and set work details repairing all the roads and bridges leading to Pittsburg Landing. Unfortunately, Generals Sherman and Grant were not so diligent in scouting and patrolling, nor in constructing roads to link the separated sections of their main camps at Pittsburg Landing. Of redoubts and barricades, there were none built by Grant to slow an enemy attack.

Several days before the April 6 attack, Lew Wallace’s spies reported a major movement of the Confederate Army from Corinth, headed for Pittsburg Landing. Lew Wallace immediately sent a dispatch to Grant, which should have been in Grant’s hand no later than the morning of the 5th of April. In his memoirs, Wallace gives Grant “the benefit of the doubt” as to whether or not Grant received the dispatch. In any case, Wallace informed his brigade commanders to make ready to move on short notice, expecting an attack at any time.

In the actual event, on the morning of April 6th, although Grant and Sherman were not technically surprised—several frontline units had tried to warn their superiors to no avail—in fact the Confederates caught them unawares and totally unprepared.

When Wallace, at Crump’s Landing, first heard the firing around six a.m., he immediately put his command in readiness to march, awaiting Grant’s marching orders. It wasn’t until about 8:30 that Grant appeared on the Tigress at Crump’s Landing and at that time merely instructed Wallace to “hold yourself in readiness to march upon orders received.” When Wallace informed Grant that his command was ready to march immediately, Grant simply said “hold the division in readiness ready to march in any direction.”

Chaos characterized the first day’s fighting at Shiloh, with Union camps being overrun and successive lines of the Federals being outflanked. It was Grant’s indecision and vague orders, not Lew Wallace’s slowness, which caused his division to arrive late to the battlefield.


It wasn’t until 11:30 a.m. that Wallace finally received Grant’s marching orders via one of Grant’s aides, who had translated Grant’s verbal orders into writing. Whether the written orders actually reflected Grant’s verbal intent has been the subject of dispute.

General Wallace’s column was actually making good progress towards the battlefield, when a series of orderlies and aides came up from behind, with panicked instructions from Grant, urging Wallace to “hurry up.” Finally, Grant’s assistant adjutant, Major Rawlins, came up and under threat of being relieved, told Wallace he was on the “wrong road,” and to divert towards the low-lying road close to the river.

In fact, Wallace had long since surveyed all the roads towards Shiloh and was proceeding on the shortest route; it was a route that would put him on the right of Sherman’s original camp, where Grant’s original instructions ordered him to go. However, the Union forces had been forced backwards towards the river since the early morning and Wallace’s route would put him behind and on the flanks of the Confederate attackers—as it turns out, exactly where he would have been able to make a difference in the first day’s flight.

However, taking Major Rawlins petulant demands as a direct order from Grant, General Lew turned his column around and marched it back to a road that would take the division southward to the sodden and marshy river route—a route which was in places covered with water as high as a horse’s breast. After making this detour, Wallace’s progress slowed to a crawl and his force was not able to reach the battlefield until after dark–after the end of the day’s fighting and too late to make a difference in the first day’s battle.

Earlier that day, as General Lew Wallace awaited orders, the situation at Shiloh had gone from bad to worse, as the Union forces were repeatedly outflanked and pushed back towards the river.

General William Wallace, by his defense of the Hornet's Nest on April 6, helped delay the Confederate advance long enough to save the remnants of Grants army at Shiloh.
General William Wallace, by his defense of the Hornet’s Nest on April 6, helped delay the Confederate advance long enough to save the remnants of Grants army at Shiloh.

     William Wallace, now in charge of the Second Division, had his command’s bivouac close to the river. Nevertheless, as soon as William Wallace heard the distant sound of firing, he ordered the drummers to sound the “Long Roll,” mobilized his division and arrived close to the front in short order. Initially, the Second Division was employed as a reserve, detaching units to the support of the frontline divisions that were desperately attempting to repulse the repeated Confederate attacks. However, because of a lack of unified command—each division fighting on its own front and lacking coordination from Grant—and a lack of prepared defenses to rally around, the Confederates were able to penetrate between the separated Union forces and flank them repeatedly. Whole regiments and even brigades of Federal troops disintegrated and fled to the rear—but not the men under William Wallace’s direct command.

It was not until the afternoon that Wallace, along with the surviving fragments of General Prentiss’ division and miscellaneous units, were able to form a stable front on the crest of a thicket covered ridgeline with a shallow sunken road meandering along it—what the Rebels called “The Hornet’s Nest.” For a large part of the afternoon Wallace’s division, along with the other units, held back repeated Confederate attacks, drawing off Rebel units from other parts of the battlefield and allowing the beaten and demoralized survivors elsewhere to retreat to Pittsburg Landing, where they crowded the riverfront by the thousands—perhaps the tens of thousands.
Finally, subjected to a massed artillery barrage and nearly surrounded, William Wallace ordered a fighting retreat. All was going well for the Second Division as it escaped the tightening noose. However, as he directed his men’s withdrawal, a sniper shot hit William Wallace in the head and he was left for dead as the retreat became a rout.

The next day, General Lew Wallace launched a counterattack on the right on his own initiative, lacking any direct orders from Grant since the day before. Similarly, on the left of the field, General Don Carlos Buell’s troops also counterattacked. Supposedly, the survivors of the first day’s fight, compressed into the center of the semi-circular federal line defending the landing, also attacked—although by mid-afternoon on Monday, April 7th, General Buell’s extreme right was covering General Lew Wallace’s extreme left.

The action of the 7th—which Buell’s men forever after called “Buell’s Battle”—is what allowed Grant to claim victory in his reports and memoirs. In all the recriminations following the Battle of Shiloh, Lew Wallace was criticized as “going slow” on the 6th and becoming either confused or lost on his way to battle—none of which was true.

General William Wallace, whose courage and rock-steady leadership in the face of overwhelming odds helped save Grant’s command, received scant recognition in all the reports of the battle. Due in large part to his fatal wounding and being unable to tell his version of the battle, William Wallace never received the full credit due him at Shiloh.

As for Lew Wallace, while Grant ultimately exonerated him of any wrongdoing, his reputation remained under a shadow even after the war.

The two Generals Wallace, both “political generals,” men committed to the cause and competent leaders in peace and war, each deserved far better of History than they have so far received.

For more about William Wallace and his wife Ann and the Battle of Shiloh, see Chapter 12 of Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War; for other, more unusual aspects of Shiloh and its aftermath, also see Chapter 11 of Ghosts and Haunts, as well as Chapter 31 of Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground.


Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife cover
Ambrose Bierce was an eyewitness to Shiloh and his account of the battle is justly famous. For more on Shiloh and Bierce, see Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife.


The Two Generals Wallace Part 1

General Lewis Wallace, the savior of Grant at both Ft. Donelson and Shiloh and author of Ben Hur
General Lewis Wallace, the savior of Grant at both Ft. Donelson and Shiloh and author of Ben Hur. (Colorized photo)
General William Hervey Lamme Wallace leading his men to battle, after Ottawa mural by G. Byron Peck
General William Hervey Lamme Wallace leading his men to battle, after Ottawa mural by G. Byron Peck

In all the chronicles, memoirs and histories of the war, then and now, some generals have, fairly or not, gotten a disproportionate share of attention. Of course, it is easy to see how Grant and Lee should get the lion’s share of ink. Yet no war is won—or lost—by just one man. Often the one who is hailed as victor in truth may owe his laurels to the efforts of those of lesser rank whose contribution to the cause has been overlooked or even deliberately slighted. Such is the case with the two generals Wallace.

General William Hervy Lamme Wallace and General Lewis Wallace, although from different states and different backgrounds, in many ways followed a similar path to the war. Both were “political generals.” As many military historians come from a professional military background, there has been a tendency to look down on such military commanders; the “political general” is almost universally regarded as either incompetent, venal or vainglorious—or a combination of all three. Some political generals were unfit for high command.  However, a civil war is in essence a political conflict, and men who are politically committed to their cause can often of great service on its behalf. Such were these two men. Conversely, a commander who possesses technical competence, yet has little appetite for the cause he serves can not only be of limited value, but may at times even harm the cause they ostensibly serve.

William Wallace, named after the famous Scottish national hero, was born in Ohio but grew to manhood in Ogle County, Illinois. Young William attended the Rock River Seminary, a school of higher learning for young men, whose alumni also included John A. Rawlins, who would later rise to become General Grant’s Chief of Staff. After graduating from there in 1844, William resolved to pursue a career in the law and was fully intending to apprentice with the firm of Logan and Lincoln. On the way, however, he met the acquaintance of Judge T. Lyle Dickey—and his daughter Ann—and decided to clerk with that esteemed Illinois jurist. Earning his admission to the Illinois Bar, Wallace  became friends with Abraham Lincoln and rubbed shoulders with many prominent lawyers and politicians of the day, many of them of like mind as Lincoln. Wallace and his wife attended the Lincoln-Douglas debate in 1858 that was held in Ottawa, Illinois.  There is little question that William Wallace was a Lincoln man through and through.

When the Mexican War broke out, William Wallace volunteered and served as a lieutenant in the 1st Illinois Volunteer Infantry, seeing active combat in Mexico, particularly at the Battle of Buena Vista. Having witnessed the battle first hand, his comments regarding the role of volunteers versus regular troops are instructive as to his views of their respective abilities. Wallace was particularly irked at efforts by the regular army commanders to take credit for the victory–a victory which he felt was due to the volunteer troops in the army. Wallace wrote, “the bull-dog courage (and) perseverance of the volunteers saved the day.”

As a friend and associate of Lincoln, William Wallace tirelessly worked for the latter’s election and when secession came, William Wallace was quick to volunteer his services, becoming Colonel of the 11th Illinois Volunteer Infantry. Although most of 1861 was uneventful for Wallace, late in the year he saw action in the field, joining General Grant’s expedition against Forts Donelson and Henry and earning a promotion to brevet brigadier general.

When Fort Henry on the Tennessee River felt easily to the Federal flotilla under Commodore Foote, General Grant resolved to march across the thin strip of land that separated it from Fort Donelson, which guarded the Cumberland River, and attack that fortress from landward. Wallace’s brigade was part of General McClernand’s division, assigned to the right flank of the besieging Federal force.

In truth, General Grant’s force was smaller than the Confederate army he was besieging inside Fort Donelson, although the Rebel commanders did not know it. On February 15, however, the Confederates resolved to break the siege and escape southward towards Nashville, where they hoped to regroup and renew the fight. The brunt of the Rebel attack therefore fell on Grant’s right, where McClernand’s troops were blocking the roads southward to Nashville.

Although attacked with overwhelming force, William Wallace’s regiments resisted valiantly, until at last, their ammunition exhausted, they were forced to retreat. Other brigades of McClernand’s division broke under the pressure of the assaults and fled in panic, but Wallace managed to keep his men together and fell back in good order. Still, the situation was critical, as the Rebels were on the verge of making good their escape; if they realized how weak Grant’s force truly was, they may even turn and overwhelm his vulnerable force.

As fate would have it, however, as William Wallace led his battered brigade back, another Union force, fresh to the battle, was advancing to fill the gap. This was a hastily assembled division, made up in large part of troops transferred from General Buell’s Army of the Ohio and under the command of General Lewis Wallace. Leading the troops relieving William Wallace was General Lew Wallace.

The two Generals Wallace exchanged brief courtesies, with General Lew directing William to his ammunition wagons to resupply, even as Lew Wallace’s troops advanced in battle formation to counter-attack. The Rebel breakthrough was blunted and then forced back by Lew Wallace’s men; General Grant’s victory at Fort Donelson was thus assured. Thanks largely to the two Wallace’s, Grant earned his laurels as the victor of Forts Donelson and Henry.

—–To Be Continued—–

For more about General William Wallace and his wife Ann Wallace, see Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground. For more on General Buell and the Army of the Ohio, see Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife.

Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife cover
Ambrose Bierce served first with the Army of the Ohio and later the Army of the Cumberland in the Western Theater during the Civil War, where he saw combat in some of the bloodiest battles of the war. For more, see, Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife